Diabetes can impact a person’s quality of life, and if blood glucose levels remain high, it can also be life-threatening. Managing blood sugar levels can reduce the risk of complications.
People who do not manage their diabetes are at risk of dangerously high blood glucose. This can trigger a cascade of symptoms, ranging from mood changes to organ damage.
A diagnosis of type 1 diabetes usually happens in childhood. In this type, scientists believe that the immune system attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, and the pancreas can no longer produce insulin. The symptoms often appear suddenly.
Type 2 diabetes is more common after the age of 45 years, and symptoms appear gradually. Many people do not know they have type 2 diabetes, and so they do not take measures to manage it. In type 2 diabetes, the body cannot use insulin properly. In time, it may stop producing insulin.
Insulin problems can cause a person to have too much sugar in their blood, and this can result in a number of complications.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that, in 2015, nearly 25 percent of people with diabetes in the United States did not know they had the condition.
A person who recognizes the signs and symptoms can getting an early diagnosis and take action to prevent complications from arising.
The following are 10 signs that a person needs help with their treatment for diabetes. Anyone experiencing them should consult a doctor promptly.
High blood glucose readings are the most obvious sign that diabetes needs attention.
When a person works out their treatment plan with their doctor, the doctor will advise them on their target glucose levels. These can vary between people.
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) note that healthy blood sugar levels are usually:
- before meals: 70–130 mg/dl
- two hours after eating: under 180 mg/dl
The correct use of diabetes medication and lifestyle changes can usually bring blood glucose within target ranges.
If blood glucose remains too high, or if it is steadily rising, the person should speak to their doctor, as they may need to adjust their treatment plan.
High blood sugar levels can increase a person’s susceptibility to infections. A person should see a doctor if they start to have more frequent infections, or if they take longer to recover from a wound or infection than they did before.
A study published in 2012 notes that people with diabetes have a higher risk of:
- skin infections, such as cellulitis or ulcers, especially on the feet
- urinary tract infections, including cystitis
- mouth and gastrointestinal infections
- respiratory tract infections, such as tuberculosis (TB) and flu
- yeast infections, for example thrush
- ear infections
Yeast feeds on sugar, and so the combination of lowered immunity and high blood glucose makes people with diabetes particularly at risk from frequent yeast infections.
Infections that occur with diabetes take longer to heal and can worsen more quickly than in other people. Without prompt treatment, sepsis, a life-threatening complication, can develop.
Ulcers, for example on the foot, can lead to tissue death, and possibly the need for amputation.
People should check regularly for skin changes and seek medical help as soon as they have any signs of an infection.
Learn more here about why people with diabetes should take extra care with their feet.
This happens because the body tries to rid the blood of excess glucose. When sugar levels are high, people also drink more frequently, causing them to produce more urine.
What does it mean if you are urinating more than usual? Click here to find out more.
People with diabetes sometimes experience polydipsia, an extreme form of thirst.
This is common in type 1 diabetes, and it can also occur with type 2 when blood sugar levels are very high.
High blood glucose can result in dehydration and thirst, and it can reduce the body’s ability to absorb water.
A person may experience:
- an overwhelming need for water
- a chronically dry mouth
Even when a person drinks more fluids, dehydration can occur.
Dehydration can contribute to diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a life-threatening emergency that can arise when the body cannot access glucose for energy, and it starts to break down fat instead.
Ketones are a by-product of this process. As they accumulate in the blood, they can make the blood too acidic.
Symptoms of DKA include:
- nausea and vomiting
- abdominal pain
- fruity-smelling breath
- a loss of consciousness and possibly a diabetic coma
People with diabetes who experience symptoms of DKA need immediate medical attention. DKA can be fatal, and it needs emergency hospital treatment.
A person with diabetes may have high blood glucose levels, but their cells cannot access this glucose to use it as energy.
This happens because the body either:
- does not produce insulin or
- cannot use insulin correctly
Insulin is necessary for processing glucose effectively. Even if a person has high blood sugar levels, their body may lack energy.
This can lead to polyphagia, in which the body triggers hunger signs as it tries to gain access to fuel. Even when a person eats, the hunger may persist, as the body continues to ask for fuel.
Although there is a link between obesity and type 2 diabetes, people who have difficulty managing their diabetes may not gain weight, even when they overeat.
If a person has a big appetite but does not gain weight, this suggests their body is not getting all the energy it needs from food.
This inability to absorb glucose can also lead to weight loss.
Whether a person with diabetes loses weight or not depends on how well the body is using glucose, and how much that person is eating.
If a person appears to be overeating but still loses weight, they should see a doctor.
A person with high blood sugar levels may notice that their breath smells fruity, or very sweet.
When the body cannot access glucose from the blood, due to insulin problems, the body breaks down fat for energy. This creates a chemical called acetone that can have a fruity smell.
A “fruity” breath is a sign of DKA, a potentially life-threatening condition that can develop over a few hours. Anyone who has this symptom should seek medical help at once.
Learn more here about what causes acetone breath and when to see a doctor.
Over time, high glucose levels can damage the blood vessels, including those of the kidneys.
As the kidneys work harder to filter the blood, kidney disease can result.
People with both diabetes and kidney disease may notice:
- very dark or bloody urine
- frothy urine
- pain near the kidneys in the lower back
- chronic kidney or urinary tract infections
Kidney disease produces few or no symptoms in its early form. When symptoms appear, there may already be damage.
This is one reason why it is important to know as soon as possible if diabetes is present and to manage blood sugar levels.
How does diabetes affect the kidneys? Click here to learn more.
Of all the complications of diabetes, cardiovascular disease is the one that is most likely to be fatal, according to research.
Poor circulation can also contribute to slow wound healing and problems in the extremities, such as the feet.
High blood pressure, chest pain, or abnormal heart rhythms are important warning signs. Whether they are due to diabetes or another condition, people should not ignore them.
Long-term high blood sugar levels can damage nerves throughout the body, particularly those that affect sensation in the hands or feet. If a person has numbness or tingling, they may have nerve damage, or diabetic neuropathy.
Some people with diabetes experience nerve pain, which can feel like electrical sensations or burning. Nerve pain can happen anywhere, but it is especially common in the feet and hands.
People who experience these symptoms should contact a doctor. Redness, swelling, or warmth in the legs can indicate a medical urgency that needs immediate attention at an emergency room.
What is diabetic neuropathy and how does it affect a person? Click here to learn more.
Anyone who experiences any of the above symptoms should see a doctor, as soon as they can, whether or not they have diabetes, as they may have diabetes without knowing it.
The sooner a person starts to manage high blood sugar, the better chance they have of slowing its progress and reducing the risk of complications.
Anyone with symptoms of DKA or chest pain should go to the emergency room without delay.